The awards ceremony also featured employees from music venues that have struggled amid a lack of live entertainment during the pandemic.
The 2021 Grammy Awards took advantage of its Southern California location in mid-March to stage an outdoor, socially-distanced awards presentation with some of the biggest stars in the music industry wearing masks and sitting at small, safely spaced tables.
At the top of the show, host Trevor Noah showed off the show’s outdoor location in downtown Los Angeles, with the Grammys’ traditional venue of the Staples Center serving as the backdrop for the stage where Noah kicked off the show and winners accepted their awards.
But, as Noah pointed out at the top of the show, it was a real backdrop, not something on Zoom.
“As you can see, this year, people, we have made the decision to socially distance from the Staples Center, but we’re still broadcasting to you from the heart of downtown Los Angeles. This is not a Zoom background, alright? This is real. My uncle isn’t going to walk behind me naked even though I told him I was having an important meeting. That’s not going to happen tonight,” Noah joked.
He added later that the Grammy attendees can enjoy the “great Los Angeles air — which I know maybe as dangerous as COVID, but we’re willing to take the risk.”
During his monologue, Noah gave viewers a tour of the set-up for the evening, with nominees wearing masks and sitting at small, socially-distanced tables inside an open-air tent.
“But we have to do it quickly because tomorrow this tent is reserved for an outdoor wedding in Malibu and I do not want to lose my security deposit,” Noah joked.
He made a few more COVID-19-inspired quips, sayign that the past year has felt like 10 years and that music and vaccines can both bring people together.
“Now, rest assured, everyone here is following all COVID-19 protocols and guidelines,” Noah said. “In fact, this is going to be the rare awards show where the white stuff going up people’s noses is cotton swabs. It’s really safe.”
He then walked along a red carpet to an indoor venue featuring five stages in the round, with artists performing for each other and the audience before another set of artists replaces them 45 minutes later.
Noah, who introduced the first five performers at the top of the show, will be in the middle with the viewer, because that’s where the cameras will be, Grammys executive producer Ben Winston recently told The Hollywood Reporter.
“They’re all safe because they’ve all come in from a totally different entrance,” Winston said.
Still, after numerous awards shows have experienced audio and video glitches during virtual appearances from nominees, Winston and Noah have maintained that this will not be a virtual awards show.
“We are going to be in person,” he said. “We have designed a set and a way of doing it that I first thought of a year ago when it was clear we probably wouldn’t be able to have that live audience.”
Indeed, award winners — including Megan Thee Stallion, Miranda Lambert and Harry Styles — accepted their trophies in person, removing their masks as they took the stage from the audience.
Earlier, the Grammys featured a pandemic-altered red carpet with only four photographers, taking stars’ pictures from 15 feet away, and five media outlets interviewing artists, who are each only allowed one guest, from within their “media pods” or platforms, separated by partitions.
The show has been working with COVID-19 experts to make sure everyone follows the necessary protocols to remain safe.
The Grammys, as announced last week, also highlighted the toll the pandemic has taken on live entertainment, with many venues still closed as artists have had to postpone tours. Employees from Nashville’s Station Inn, Los Angeles’ Troubadour and Hotel Cafe and New York’s Apollo Theater were among those presenting awards.
Station Inn owner J.T. Gray introduced his venue via video, recalling how Vince Gill, Chris Stapleton and Dierks Bentley have performed there.
“When COVID hit, we had to close down. We had no idea what we were going to do,” Gray said in part. “Bigger venues can sustain revenue loss more than a small venue. We hope we can be back in business soon because music is like therapy for people.”
Gray presented the award for best country album to Lambert.
Later Troubadour night manager Rachelle Erratchu talked about how the iconic L.A. venue is “like going to church,” noting how people still talk about shows that happened there 40 or 50 years ago.
“We build a community here every night and that community is gone,” she said.
Erratchu appeared in person to present Styles with the award for best pop solo performance.
Later Billy Mitchell, from the Apollo, presented the award for best rap song after recalling the history of the venue and how he started off running errands.
“We miss our audience and we can’t wait until our doors open back up again,” he said.
Candice Fox, a bartender at The Hotel Cafe, recalled how the venue last had an audience on March 14.
“This is my family, this is my community and for this place to no longer exist would be devastating, it would be absolutely heartbreaking,” she said in part in her video segment, which like those highlighting the other venues featured images of the locations.
Fox, who was in attendance on the Grammys stage to present the album of the year award, said she misses seeing regulars.
Ahead of the In Memoriam tribute, which featured artists who died after battles with COVID-19 like Adam Schlesinger and John Prine, Noah expressed gratitude for essential workers around the world while recognizing the death toll of the past year.
The Grammys was already delayed due to the pandemic, shifting its date from Jan. 31 to the middle of March due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles in January.
“After thoughtful conversations with health experts, our host and artists scheduled to appear, we are rescheduling the 63rd annual Grammy Awards to be broadcast Sunday, March 14, 2021,” Recording Academy chair and interim president/CEO Harvey Mason Jr., CBS evp specials, music, live events and alternative programming Jack Sussman and Winston said in a statement at the time. “The deteriorating COVID situation in Los Angeles, with hospital services being overwhelmed, ICUs having reached capacity, and new guidance from state and local governments have all led us to conclude that postponing our show was the right thing to do.”